It’s Christmas time so …I pulled this Christmas record out.
I knew this album wasn’t a selection of traditional Christmas songs but I wasn’t expecting this.
A total spinout album.
This album comes after a major line-up shuffle in early 1967 that saw three members (Valley, Volk, and Smith) leave the band and songwriter Mark Lindsay take control of the direction of the band. From this point on Paul Revere & the Raiders would move away from their garage rock, frat rock beginnings towards a more pop style. The band had been moving that way anyway as evidenced by the fact that Volk and Smith joined another former member, Drake Levin, in the more serious and uncommercial Brotherhood.
Also, June 1967 saw the release of The Beatles Sgt Peppers album, an album I’ve never really loved though its musical historical importance is undeniable (though it did not appear in a vacuum and wasn’t as revolutionary as many contemporary music critics seem to think … it was very popular at the time though, and was preceded with quite a bit of hype).
At the time its popularity did shake things up though. Its catchy and fully orchestrated pop tunes sold to the kids and the mainstream whilst its musical quirks endeared it to the emerging hip underground rock movement. It crossed many audiences and demographics and was an extremely influential album.
It punctuated in commercial terms what had been happening since Bob Dylan started recording … and that is that if you were a serious musician you put out albums not singles.
Paul Revere & the Raiders where, essentially, a singles act.
Albeit a singles act who put out many worthwhile albums, but ultimately, a singles act.
Or, that’s how the public perceived them.
In 50s and 60s rock ‘n’ roll there were only a handful, hell, probably only two, singles acts who could sell albums en masse … Elvis Presley and The Beatles. And, both, in their own ways became more album oriented.
OK, you could add The Monkees and maybe Credence Clearwater Revival to that list.
Outside of music (in the real world) the Vietnam War was being fought, the Cold War was alive and well, civil rights demonstrations and poverty riots were ongoing and there was turmoil in the air which would culminate in the events of civil disobedience both in the US and across the western world in 1968.
Accordingly, there was growing pressure in 1967 for pop musicians to "have something to say".
And the music single was not the way to say it.
The album was.
So, this is what Paul Revere & the Raiders were faced with.
And, Christmas was looming.
And, record labels love Christmas albums.
Some quick sales on the back of Yuletide cheer without a hit single needed.
The new Raiders were moving to a more pop commercial sound and also (no doubt) trying to distance themselves from the prefab teeny bopper image (with colourful Revolutionary War costumes and near-daily appearances on TV (mainly on the show “Where The Action Is”)).
They, no doubt, wanted to flex their musical muscle (and explore new sounds) and wanted to do it a way which would not affect their normal output … what better than a Christmas album that would be deleted shortly thereafter?
But what happened was extraordinary.
Lindsay recalls it this way, “When CBS said they wanted a Christmas album, we couldn’t see giving them the one they probably expected,” former lead singer Mark Lindsay said. “Then we’d flip on the news and see ’Nam in full color, so that had to sink in. We were also traveling in the South at the time, so those kinds of [civil rights] issues came up. So most of our singles weren’t political, but the Christmas album totally was. It was a disaster, but it reflected what we were feeling at the time. It was a good time for flower power and protest.”
The album was unusual for many reasons. For starters, unlike most Christmas albums which are made up of standards this is one which only has one standard, the rest are all originals.
And the originals were, musically, pop and the more familiar garage (though toned down) but all saturated with a raiders trying to be hip like some countercultural pranksters.
These guys are to pop (and mainstream) to ever be The Fugs but it is amazing to listen to.
The album is topical and quite cynical with acute societal observations, rambling narratives, Vietnam protest, boozy singalongs, hippie and beat humour, quirky musical interludes (like the two minutes of kazoo at the end and the brass band oom-pahs between each song), and studio trickery all done to their usual catchy tunes.
Even the title of the album “A Christmas Present … and past” referring to both a gift and today and yesterday is in on the humour … get it?
Are they referring to the mix of old Christmas tunes (one) and new ones or something about America and the state of the union? Mark Lindsay and producer Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day, friend of Brian Wilson) wrote all the original songs apart from a bizarre version of "Jingle Bells".
There is a "PS" on the back that reads: "There are actually nine "presents" in this album – nine original Christmas songs by Mark Lindsay and Terry Melcher. Presents with a future, the past saluted with Jingle Bells".
What I like is the gentle cynicism. The cynicism is not about Christmas itself but about people and the nation at Christmas. The detail of everyday things on some of the songs is quite Ray Davies Kinksian.
Not surprisingly, Columbia hated it, DJs hated it, and the public at the time hated it (it made it to #10 on the Christmas albums list but that isn’t saying much as it only got to #71 on the Top 100 … and this is from a band who were charting well). In fact this is quite daring for a mainstream band, and a big one at that. They were very popular.
“One of the most popular and entertaining rock groups of the 1960s, Paul Revere & the Raiders enjoyed seven years of serious chart action, and during their three biggest years (1966-1969), sold records in numbers behind only the Beatles and the Rolling Stones”. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/paul-revere-the-raiders-mn0000750456/biography
The album is a period piece and of its time. There are more studio ideas than music and at times it feels like it isn't fully formed. But these types of records, even with their faults, give us some insights into what was happening in the real world at the time … much more than something like “Sgt Peppers”, perhaps.
Musically it will never be on high rotation with the masses but for those who like to dig there is a little piece of gold here.
Check out my other comments on Paul Revere & the Raiders for biographical detail.
All songs by Lindsay-Melcher unless noted
Tracks (best in italics)
- Introduction – a humorous introduction introducing The Salvation Army band – shades of Sgt Peppers.
- Wear a Smile at Christmas – A Lovin Spoonfull-ish tune which is quite good (despite the bad click I have on my copy of the vinyl). A Lyndon B Johnson (the president of the US at the time) impersonator makes an appearance.
- Jingle Bells – (Pierpont) – Just a weird version of Jingle Bells that sounds like it was sung at the local bar after everyone has had a few. The singers (who are credited but weren't in the band) were a mystery for some time. Says Lindsay, “That was a guy named Paul Connors, who worked at the hot-dog stand around the corner from the studio. Terry Melcher and I would talk to him when we went on breaks. He was a big showbiz fan, a living encyclopedia. When he found out we worked at the studio, he kept begging us to let him come visit,” Lindsay says. “His girlfriend used to hang out at the counter with him, so we invited both of them to sing ‘Jingle Bells.” When we were done, I pulled out a Johnny Mathis track and let Paul sing on it, then gave him the tape to take home. Please, CBS, don’t bill us for that”. .http://www.goldminemag.com/article/solve-the-mystery-behind-paul-revere-the-raiders%E2%80%99-christmas-album
- Brotherly Love – a ballad which is quite effective (if a little dated) and is adapted from the traditional tune Greensleeves.
- Rain, Sleet, Snow – it's as if Eric Clapton and Cream went Christmassy. A song about the postman getting the mail through, I think.
- Peace – an orchestral instrumental that meanders and sets mood.
- Valley Forge – you are taken to Valley Forge in 1775 … a very pretty song with something to say.
- Dear Mr. Claus – a bizarre love song done in a Vaudeville style which is quite lascivious (and some would say misogynistic). The narrator is writing to Mr Claus asking him to send him a real life doll to, apparently, help with the pots, pans, dirty dishes. There is even a wolf howl at the end. It is up there with "Trim Your Tree" by Jimmy Butler, "It's Christmas Time" by Mojo Nixon, "Let's Make Christmas Merry Baby" by Amos Milburn" and "Santa Claus Is Back In Town" by Elvis Presley in the great sexy Christmas song list.
- Macy's Window – another gentle song with Christmas as a background. Like a Christmas version of Elvis' "In The Ghetto" with Ray Davies like observations … but it is over too quick.
- Christmas Spirit – pleasant with a little more emphasis on the brass band
- A Heavy Christmas Message – "who took the Christ out of Christmas" is the central theme of the song with a spoken sermon like (church organ and all) interlude followed by two minutes of background kazoo music. Nice.
Not fantastic and perhaps not fully realised, but, at times, effective, catchy and endearing … I'm keeping it.
Wear a Smile at Christmas
Rain, Sleet, Snow
Dear Mr. Claus
A Heavy Christmas Message
Half liked it
- Paul Revere And The Raiders at this stage: Mark Lindsay – Vocals, Saxophone / Charlie Coe – Bass Guitar / Drake "Kid" Levin – Lead Guitar / Freddy Weller – Lead Guitar / Joe Correro, Jr. – Drums
- "Rain, Sleet, Snow" b/w "Brotherly Love" was due to be released as a single but was cancelled.